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Are Houston Rockets Title Contenders or Just Really Good Pretenders?

Kelly Scaletta@@KellyScalettaFeatured ColumnistNovember 30, 2014

HOUSTON, TX - NOVEMBER 28:  James Harden #13 of the Houston Rockets looks to drive on Jamal Crawford #11 of the Los Angeles Clippers during their game at the Toyota Center on November 28, 2014 in Houston, Texas.  NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and/or using this photograph, user is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement.  (Photo by Scott Halleran/Getty Images)
Scott Halleran/Getty Images

Almost 20 percent of the way through the season, the Houston Rockets are blowing up expectations, sitting on a 13-4 record. Are they actually title contenders, or are they just really good pretenders?

That question is difficult to answer for several reasons. Some of the Rockets’ sensational start is due to a soft schedule, but some of it is in spite of an array of injury issues. For those reasons, one could argue that the Rockets are either better or worse than they really are.

The Schedule

There is substantial reason to doubt the Rockets are for real. It’s easy to look at their schedule and consider that part of their beefy start is a result of playing against inferior competition.

The only teams they’ve beaten that currently have winning records are the Miami Heat (Nov. 4), San Antonio Spurs (Nov. 6), Dallas Mavericks (Nov. 22), Sacramento Kings (Nov. 26) and Milwaukee Bucks (Nov. 30).

The Spurs were resting Tim Duncan and Manu Ginobili when they played. The Kings were without Darren Collison. The games versus the Bucks and Heat were the only ones on the road. The Bucks had a losing record last season, so it remains to be seen if they’re even legitimate playoff contenders.

That means the Rockets’ lone quality win is a home game against the Mavericks, who were on the second end of a back-to-back and playing in Houston.

When they’ve played rested, quality teams, they haven’t fared well. The Golden State Warriors beat them by double-digits in Space City on Nov. 8. The Memphis Grizzlies obliterated them by 26 on Nov. 17. The Los Angeles Clippers wiped the court with them by 17 in Houston on Nov. 28.

HOUSTON, TX - NOVEMBER 28:  Chris Paul #3 of the Los Angeles Clippers dribbles the basketball past Kostas Papanikolaou #16 of the Houston Rockets  during their game at the Toyota Center on November 28, 2014 in Houston, Texas.  NOTE TO USER: User expressly
Scott Halleran/Getty Images

If you’re looking to validate your pessimism, the schedule makes a good case. But such examination against any schedule would probably see similar findings. No one faces only winning, fully healthy opponents.

There are various formulas that incorporate margin of victory and strength of schedule together to establish rankings, and the Rockets are well-represented in them.

In Basketball-Reference.com’s Simple Rating System (SRS), the Rockets are 10th. In TeamRankings.com’s predictive rankings, they are ninth. In John Hollinger’s power rankings, they are 11th. Average the three out, and the Rockets are 10th.

That’s enough to establish them a very good team, but in the Western Conference, very good is not enough to be called a contender. A top-10 team is merely a very good pretender. But the statistical rankings don’t account for everything.

Rockets’ Injuries Influence the Numbers

There’s another thing to factor into all this. It’s not like the Rockets have been doing everything at 100 percent, and not all the stars have aligned for them in every game. Most notably, their injury situation has impaired them.

The Rockets have been without Dwight Howard for seven games. Patrick Beverley has been absent for 10. Terrence Jones has been gone for 13. And with injuries, the impact builds exponentially, not incrementally.

As a result, they have courted eight different starting lineups and none for more than three games. They’ve been without at least two starters 10 games and had only one or no injuries just seven times. 

Half their losses have come when they’ve been missing three starters. That seems fairly forgivable. In fact, that they’ve played as well as they have through injury is impressive, particularly since just losing Howard would make it excusable if they were losing more.

HOUSTON, TX - NOVEMBER 26:  Patrick Beverley #2 and Dwight Howard #12 of the Houston Rockets wait near the bench during their game against the Sacramento Kings at the Toyota Center on November 26, 2014 in Houston, Texas.  NOTE TO USER: User expressly ackn
Scott Halleran/Getty Images

The Rockets are 3.2 points per 100 possessions better with him on offense, and their opponents are 10.5 points worse when he plays. That’s not making excuses; it’s showing how impressive it is that Houston doesn’t need to make one.

But this onion has many layers.

The next of these layers can be demonstrated by a crazy number: 55. That’s the most minutes the Rockets have had any single lineup (Howard, Trevor Ariza, Isaiah Canaan, James Harden and Donatas Motiejunas) together on the court this season.

Forty-five other lineups have played at least as much. The Los Angeles Lakers starting five, by comparison, have played 263 minutes together, and the Lakers have played one fewer game.

The Rockets have had no other lineup play more than 34 minutes. Their actual starting five has played just 25.

That tends to impact the numbers, in both obvious and hidden ways.

There’s a hidden blessing at work, though. The Rockets came into the season with an inexperienced bench. And if you look at just the bench numbers, Houston appears to have one of the worst second units in the league right now.

Per RealGM.com, they are 27th in rebounds, 25th in assists and 29th in scoring. That’s pretty awful all the way across the board. But bear in mind that when a starter is out, a bench player is moving up into the starting rotation.

That means the bench is getting shorter and thinner. The bench numbers get impacted even more than the starter numbers.

The hidden impact is in how much it affects chemistry. Players don’t have as much chance to learn one another’s habits and preferences when they never get on-court time together. The constantly changing lineups make it harder to develop that, especially when it’s a team like Houston with seven players who weren’t on the roster last season.

This, in part, explains why the Rockets are 29th in assist-to-turnover ratio. Many of the Rockets’ turnovers are would-be assists gone awry because the passer and receiver weren’t on the same page. Continuity will change that.

So what does all of this mean?

HOUSTON, TX - NOVEMBER 28:  Trevor Ariza #1 of the Houston Rockets gets the ball stolen by Jamal Crawford #11 of the Los Angeles Clippers during their game at the Toyota Center on November 28, 2014 in Houston, Texas.  NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowle
Scott Halleran/Getty Images

Ariza put it well, telling the following to Jonathan Feigen of the Houston Chronicle:

I think every season teams go through adversity – it’s how you respond to it and how you come out of it that matters. So far, being shorthanded, we have responded well. We have come out of every game learning something, figuring out something out, figuring out what we can do through adversity and that’s a plus for us.

Statistical rankings aren’t worried about wins and losses or injuries. They are looking at point differential and strength of schedule; ergo, the statistical rankings are actually undervaluing the Rockets.

The process matters, and through the process, the Rockets are gaining experience. Their young players are logging heavier minutes than they would, and they are improving as a result.

Pat Sullivan/Associated Press

Tarik Black is third among rookies in win shares. Kostas Papanikolaou is fifth.

Motiejunas has learned to post up players. Last year, 59.9 percent of his attempts came at the rim with a 54.5 percent success rate. This year, those numbers are 73.3 percent and 56.5 percent, respectively.

Canaan is averaging 1.3 more points per 36 minutes and attempting just .1 more field-goal attempts to do so.

All these parts are developing, and as the Rockets get healthy, the team will suddenly be deep. Canaan, Jason Terry, Papanikolaou and Black might not be terrifying, but it’s a capable second unit with room to grow.

***

The question is now this: Are the Rockets not as good as their record, better than their record or fairly represented by their record? Reasonably, it would seem that the weight of the injury impact at least counters the lightness of their schedule.

That being the case, the Rockets are as good as or better than their schedule, and either puts them as more than mere pretenders. I wouldn’t list them as favorites—that distinction goes to the Warriors or Spursbut apart from those two teams, the Rockets have as good a chance as anyone in the West.

Stats for this article are courtesy of NBA.com/Stats, Basketball-Reference.com and RealGm.com. They are current through games of Nov. 29.  

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